Guest Commentary

Irresponsible dog owners, frontier-law mindset spell grim fate for strays

If you are the kind of person who believes the way a society treats its animals reflects the way it treats its people, you ought to be concerned for the welfare of Cochise County residents.

Numerous reports of dogs running wild have prompted the Cochise County Sheriff's Department to shoot and kill at least 47 dogs since July in five rural southeast Arizona communities, according to news reports. Several family pets were killed in the streets of Bowie in August while residents watched. The Humane Society of Southern Arizona has asked for an investigation.

Bowie resident Velvet Berumen told the Range News in Willcox her two dogs were among those shot and killed. "They (the officers) killed the dogs 30 feet from my door. My kids and I saw the final shots," she said.

Berumen stated she had received no warning; that no officer knocked on her door, asking if the dogs were hers; and that the sound of gunshots brought her and her husband to their front door, along with her 3-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter.

Lt. Al Tomlinson, of the Cochise County Sheriff's Department, explained to a crowd of about 40 concerned--some very angry--Bowie residents several days after the shooting that two deputies, four animal control officers and one U.S. Department of Agriculture predator control officer conducted the "animal control detail" in response to reports that people had felt threatened, or been bitten, by loose dogs in rural areas.

"We use him (the USDA shooter) as a tool of last resort," Tomlinson said.

If shooting dogs in front of kids on the streets of our small towns was their last resort, we folks opposed to that kind of solution want to know: What was their first?

Why didn't they trap problem dogs? Why weren't people informed law enforcement officers were coming to their community to shoot loose dogs? Why does the Cochise County Sheriff's Department carry on like Southeast Arizona is still the Wild West, where problems were once commonly solved simply by shooting at them?

Nearly 10 years ago, that kind of mindset landed the city of Willcox in deep trouble when the town's management was convicted of animal abuse by the state of Arizona for allowing city employees (fire fighters and police officers) to shoot impounded dogs and drown impounded cats. This was the way the city of Willcox had been solving its stray pet population for years.

A Cochise County animal control officer was prosecuted at the same time for shooting and dumping dogs in the desert instead of driving the animals to a shelter.

Since then, Willcox has cleaned up its act and now runs a decent animal shelter, but dogs dumped or let loose in the county continue to face a grisly fate at the hands of county and federal animal control officers, and resident ranchers and farmers. In the name of protecting livestock, stray dogs are often shot on sight.

One former neighbor of mine shot and killed his own family's dog after it chased his cattle. He dragged it off his property with a truck and dumped it on a neighbor's vacant farm land to rot. I came across the discarded carcass while walking one day.

That same neighbor chased a stray dog around my property, when I wasn't home, in front of my kids, until he and his son-in-law caught and dragged it down the road with their truck before shooting, killing and dumping it beside the road. I remember wondering what that guy's own kids and grandkids thought about him doing that.

I also remember one employee at an ostrich farm I worked at who caught somebody's little dog sniffing around. He repeatedly stabbed it, just short of outright killing it, before remarking to a co-worker that its owners would have something to wonder about if the bleeding dog managed to make it home before dying.

As awful as these incidents were, they are at least in the name of protecting livestock in an agricultural area. More than 1,000 dogs and cats have been impounded countywide within the past three months. The dumping of unwanted pets is a huge problem here.

But there's something truly disturbing when law enforcement officers come into rural neighborhoods, unannounced, and start shooting every loose dog they come across, in the name of solving the stray dog problem.

One has to wonder what the kids in Cochise County are learning from this kind of problem-solving.